When you were small, I liked telling you dramatic stories that ended by making you feel good.
I'd like to tell you a little story today.
Once upon a time many years ago, an auctioneer who lived in Los Angeles had a bad sore throat and went to see his doctor. The doctor looked into his mouth.
"If you don't quit smoking," the doctor said, "you'll get throat cancer and won't be able to auction anymore."
Unable to speak because the doctor was pressing down his tongue with a stick, the auctioneer gestured toward the pocket where he kept his cigarettes and lighter. Then he gestured toward the doctor's open window and made a throwing motion with his hand.
The doctor understood, lifted the man's cigarettes and lighter from the pocket and threw them out the window.
The auctioneer never smoked again.
Thirty-six years passed and the auctioneer was at the doctor's for a routine chest X-ray. He felt wonderful.
Afterward, the doctor called him. "I think we found something on the X-ray that wasn't there three months ago," the doctor said.
The auctioneer had lung cancer.
This story probably doesn't make you feel good. To be fair, let me tell you another story, one that doesn't make me feel good.
Once upon a time, there was a 6-year-old girl. She came home from first grade one day and noticed, sticking out from a high kitchen shelf that she was too small to see over, a pack of Winstons. Something told her they belonged to her father even though she'd never seen him smoke.
"Daddy's going to get sick," she cried. "Daddy's going to die."
Her father picked her up and hugged her and assured her that he was going to be all right. The very next day, he quit smoking.
Twenty years passed and he never smoked again.
The little girl grew up. She became a smoker.
Enough of stories. The auctioneer is real; his name is Robert Abell. I don't have to tell you who the little girl and her father are.
Robert Abell is a kindly, civically active man who runs the A.N. Abell auction company. After 36 years of tobacco abstinence, he was astonished to learn last June that he has cancer. "When the doctor called me, I broke into a cold sweat," he says. "How could it happen to me?"
His oncologist, Dr. Cary Gota, past president of the Cancer Detection Center at Good Samaritan Hospital, doesn't doubt that the cancer resulted from Abell's having smoked all those years ago. Eighty-seven percent of lung cancer cases are caused by smoking.
Talking to Abell cast a slightly dimmer light on the 20th anniversary of my having quit smoking, which was three days ago. Off tobacco for 20 years, a former smoker is statistically almost indistinguishable from those who've never smoked in terms of heart disease, emphysema and stroke. His risks of contracting cancer are significantly reduced, but not eliminated: Gota says that even longtime reformed smokers are still 1.4 to 1.7 times more likely to get cancer than lifelong nonsmokers.
I am delighted and grateful for having quit. I have clear lungs and no morning headaches and can run 10 miles without stopping. The minimal statistical disadvantage I carry is little more than a reminder of past unwisdom, a spur to act wisely now.
Here are a few things, Laura, that I want you to ponder:
--Smokers are 10 times more likely to develop lung cancer than nonsmokers.
--Lung cancer is hard to detect before it becomes lethal. Only about 14% of those diagnosed live for five more years.
--The lung cancer death rate for women rose steadily from 1970 to the late 1990s. For four decades, breast cancer had been the leading cause of death by cancer for women; in 1987, lung cancer surpassed it. 67,600 women will die of lung cancer in the year 2,000.
--Also this year, 379,000 Americans will die of cancer, heart disease, strokes and emphysema, all caused by smoking.
Robert Abell's cancer spread from his lungs to his lymphatic system, but radiation and chemotherapy have sent it into remission. Gota says it's likely to reappear, but that "if he can get through three years, he's going to be home free."
Let's wish him the very best of luck.
Meanwhile, I'm troubled by thoughts of what smoking is doing to you, papering the linings of your lungs, starving your red blood cells of oxygen, narrowing your arteries--readying your body for heart attacks, emphysema, strokes.
About half of all smokers die prematurely; about a fourth never make it past middle age, forfeiting as many as 25 years of life.
Not to be self-centered about it, but I didn't help bring you into and up in this world for you to have anything less than the fullest measure of happiness and longevity.
You assume that one day you'll give up smoking, but every day that you don't draws you deeper into the dreaded statistics.
So, quit, sweetheart, quit today. Give us a story to tell that makes us both feel good.